Clause 16

– in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 10th February 2009.

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Orders requring attendance at meetings

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment 23, in clause 16, page 15, line 6, after ‘section’, insert

‘by making an order under section 177 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 or’.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 24, in clause 16, page 15, line 8, at end insert

‘(such order requiring attendance at meetings being referred to as a “meeting requirement order” for the purposes of this section)’.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The provisions of clause 16 effectively follow on from those of the previous clause in that, rather than levying a fine for an offence under clause 15, the court may deal with a person convicted of such an offence by making an order requiring the offender to attend three meetings with a supervisor. That effectively reproduces, with schedule 1 and with some modifications, proposals that were dropped from the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Orders to promote rehabilitation are now more neutrally described as:

“Orders requiring attendance at meetings.”

Under the previous provisions, it would have been permissible for an offender arrested for breach of an order to be detained for up to 72 hours if he or she could not be brought immediately before the appropriate court. We will obviously go on to discuss the detail in schedule 1.

Amendment 23, standing in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds, is the principal amendment in the group. It is designed to test the Government’s approach to the orders and to question how effective they will be. If we assume—again, this is an assumption made for the purposes of debate—that a criminal justice approach is right or appropriate in certain circumstances, what should that approach and response be? In the previous debate, we heard from the Minister that the 1959 welfare approach remains valid, so I assume that he accepts that some form of positive intervention to try to change behaviour and prevent harm is appropriate, in addition to or as a supplement to the existing, more traditional criminal justice punishment approach. If we follow that line of logic, the clause merely provides for a requirement to attend meetings. The provisions go on to say that the purpose of those meetings is to

“address the causes of the conduct” and to help people to

“find ways to cease engaging in such conduct in the future”.

The amendment seeks to test why an alternative approach could not be taken—a community order, for example, with a drug rehabilitation requirement attached to it, or some other support mechanism. Would that not be a more appropriate way of addressing some of the underlying causes, challenges or issues that might be connected with the criminal behaviour in question?

In determining what may be appropriate, a court will receive various reports from probation and other services about the offender. Those reports will set out and test what requirements or sanctions might be appropriate to address aspects of the individual’s behaviour. Why does the Minister believe that the meeting requirement will be effective? There is some scepticism about whether making someone who has been convicted of an offence simply attend three meetings will be effective. It is all very well wishing that something might happen, but where is the follow-through?

A court order, which reflects a more compulsion-oriented approach, could be more effective in providing assistance and support mechanisms in relation to drugs and other problems. As we know, sadly, many people involved in prostitution are also addicted to drugs and rely on a pimp for their supply of drugs as well as for marketing their services. How can we use the criminal justice approach in a constructive way to direct and ensure that support services are followed through and acted on?  Instead of simply saying that there will be some meetings, could a different, more effective approach be considered? That is why we propose the reference to section 177 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which is the signpost to those community orders.

I hope that the Minister will clarify why the Government have taken this approach. Will he consider looking at whether it is appropriate and whether alternative approaches, providing support through a community punishment, might be more effective and achieve some of the ends that Members on both sides of the Committee want to be achieved?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield 12:45 pm, 10th February 2009

I have a brief point to make that follows on from the comments that have just been made. I wonder about the rationale behind the three meetings that somebody convicted of loitering for prostitution could be sent to under the clause. Will the Minister explain how we arrived at three? What is the effectiveness of three meetings? Are they three half-hour meetings or three one-day meetings? What duration are we talking about? Who will organise the meetings—the National Offender Management Service or private sector bodies that have won the contract? Will they be paid for from the NOMS budget or will money be made available?

There appear to be no arrangements to ensure that completion is noted by the court and the police. Can the order be a repeat order or is it a one-off? Can someone be sentenced to three meetings and a year later be sentenced to three meetings again as a repeat offender? Under proposed new section 1A(4)(b), which is in clause 16(3), the court will, if sentencing somebody to attend the three meetings within a six-month period, specify for up to six months where the person resides. That could be seen as fairly draconian. How will it be monitored and what are the penalties if the person moves in that period of up to six months?

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Will the Minister clarify two things? First, if a prostitute is arrested and attends a magistrates court, the original offence for loitering will be withheld while the three meetings take place. If the meetings do not take place because the prostitute does not attend for whatever reason, or if she does not reside where she is supposed to, will she be prosecuted only for the original offence or for two offences—the original offence and the offence of not attending the meetings—and be further criminalised?

Clause 16 is probably the sloppiest part of the Bill. Is it not possible better to define the kind of services that will be administered during the three meetings so as to specify that health services will be administered and by whom? Rather than a person being identified as an appropriate person, can we not say that that person should have various health qualifications and be specialised in drug rehabilitation or in the diseases or illnesses that a prostitute contracts as part of her work? Can it not be somebody who has the ability and the appropriate qualifications to deal with the problems that occur?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Given that the last two contributions have ranged more widely than the narrow questions raised in Mr. Brokenshire’s amendment, I will take further general contributions on the clause and we will then dispense with the clause stand part debate.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

That makes it straightforward. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield asked some specific questions and I hope that the Minister will have time to get the replies in order.

I wish to raise a few general points about the approach taken by the measure. It will not surprise the Minister that my points are on a previous theme, which is that those concerned with the welfare of prostitutes, such as the Safety First coalition, have made clear their opposition to that approach. This is essentially compulsory rehabilitation with the threat of imprisonment if people do not go through the process.

There is the question whether compulsory rehabilitation is a contradiction in terms. The problem with a requirement for women to attend meetings is that many prostitutes have chaotic lives; they are vulnerable and a very high proportion have children, often young children. I pay regard to that fact, and I hope that the Minister will do the same.

Although the Government say that people are allowed a reasonable excuse for not attending a meeting, the intention behind backing up the provision with a stronger penalty of a fine or even imprisonment is likely to make matters worse, as I and the Safety First coalition believe. As I have said, the Bill contains no provision for resources to address the problems facing the women. For example, if the clause had a provision whereby their needs and financial difficulties had to be assessed under statute, with a duty of care placed on local authorities or Government agencies that would receive resources to meet the needs and problems of the women, there would be more justification for it. However, it refers only to penalties. There is inadequate resourcing of support for women and all we have received is an offer from the Government to look into how they can better resource the services. The approach is imbalanced.

Because of the threat of ultimate sanction, women will be forced underground into more isolated and dangerous areas to avoid arrest, referral and possible imprisonment. The Safety First coalition argues that there is evidence that compulsory rehabilitation schemes on arrest would not help, and that it would be far better to decouple rehabilitation, in a properly resourced way, from the criminal justice system.

The Minister will know of the widespread welcome for the Corston report. It was published two years ago, and recommended against imprisoning women for non-violent offences.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Order. We have had a wide-ranging debate on the overall thrust of the Government’s proposals to place criminal responsibility on the users of prostitutes. The clause deals with procedures in relation to orders issued by a court to a prostitute for attending meetings. We cannot repeat the wider debate, but if the hon. Gentleman has comments about the orders, now would be the appropriate time to discuss them as we shall not be having a clause stand part debate.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am a little confused, because I have not talked about the imprisonment of women and the impact that that would have.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

“Imprisonment” is the wrong word. I think the hon. Gentleman understands my point. This is not the right debate in which to repeat the general  arguments relating to clause 13. Clause 16 relates to orders for attending meetings, and he should confine his remarks to such matters.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I seek your guidance, Mr. Bayley, because I thought that clause 16 and schedule 1 included a standby measure as part of the new law under which women will face imprisonment if they do not attend the meetings, and that that was part and parcel of the provisions.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

We will have a separate debate on the schedule.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I have tabled an amendment to the schedule, so I am happy to remark on the impact of imprisonment then. I was seeking not to duplicate matters, but to make new points. I accept your guidance, Mr. Bayley, on when to talk about imprisonment.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I will address some specific issues, but I suspect that we shall talk about them again at a later date. The hon. Member for Chesterfield asked why there is a need for three meetings. I said earlier that we regard them as a gateway to other activities and services that can be accessed. They are likely to create the foundation on which the individual can continue to access support and advice to exit prostitution. The duration of the meeting is up to the supervisor.

Where will the supervisors come from? We will expect them to be drawn from people with expert knowledge in this field, such as those working for local voluntary organisations dealing with drugs or whatever. Again, we return to the issue of funding. Some local neighbourhoods have access to funding that is ring-fenced to address issues around deprivation that are pertinent to their area. For example, if they were to make tackling street prostitution a priority, as it is in some neighbourhoods, the resources would be there. Again, we need to take into consideration any additional demands on resources.

There can be a repeat order, but the longer that that goes on, the less likely it is that the court will regard it as an appropriate way to deal with the person. It might then find an alternative way to hold them to account for what they are doing. As for how we monitor those moving to other areas, the order will not be able to stipulate where a person lives. However, moving out of an area and not continuing to attend meetings will be regarded as a breach. In that case, the supervisor will refer the matter back to the court, which will assess whether there is a reasonable reason for the breach. If there is not, it may then decide whether to intervene in some other way.

Some myths were perpetuated in some comments, not least those from the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Mid-Bedfordshire. People will not be prosecuted for not attending meetings. If the supervisor informs the court that, after an order has been placed, a person is in breach of that order, the court can issue a summons. At that point, the person will quite rightly be held to account for not responding to it. In that process, if the order is not taking the prostitute in that particular direction, we can go back to the original offence and look at re-sentencing. I hope that that answers most of, if not all, the points.

I want briefly to address the amendments in particular. Amendment 23 was introduced in a very reasonable way by the hon. Member for Hornchurch, who made a genuine attempt to discover the rationale behind the measure and why we will not be able to accept his proposals.

Amendment 23 would enable the courts to impose a community order under section 177 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The aim is to ensure that the range of options in drug rehabilitation requirements, which can be imposed by a community order, would be available for those convicted of loitering or soliciting. However, we consider that the proposed orders will enable those convicted of the offence to access the services that the hon. Gentleman talked about. Therefore, it is not necessary to make the amendment to allow for that, given the other consequences that will flow from turning this new sentence into a community order.

In particular, the maximum penalty for an offence of loitering or soliciting is currently a fine, which we think is proportionate. Allowing a community order to be imposed will increase the maximum penalty for this offence, because a community order is considered significantly more serious. We do not believe that the seriousness of this offence—serious though it is—justifies an increase in the maximum penalty.

It is also worth noting that the breach of an order can ultimately lead to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks. A prison sentence is not a possible outcome  for failing to comply with an order to attend meetings, though it is for not responding to a summons. If we allowed the imposition of a community order, we would increase the risk of vulnerable persons involved in street prostitution being sent to prison for a relatively minor offence. Furthermore, allowing courts to impose the more onerous sections of a community order would risk undermining that, as courts would not necessarily impose rehabilitative requirements. They could, for example, impose an unpaid work requirement that did not necessarily address the issue of the prostitute.

The aim of the order, which will be introduced by clause 13, is to provide an alternative to a fine. That may help to break the cycle of people being fined for loitering or soliciting and having to return to the streets to earn money to pay the fine. It is not necessary to raise the maximum penalty for the offence for that alternative to be available. That is the point of the order. It is intended to allow those who are willing to engage with support services to access such services without the pressure of paying off a fine. In that way, it allows for a more rehabilitative rather than a punitive approach when that is appropriate.

The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.